Paintball Journalism? Former Ranger, Journalists Trade Shots With Hezbollah

Apr 9, 2012
Originally published on April 15, 2012 8:42 am

"Paintballing With Hezbollah Is The Path Straight To Their Hearts," says the headline at the newssite.

In a quest to get to better know members of the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, four Western journalists and a former U.S. Army Ranger last year arranged to play paintball in Beirut with some men who said they were among the group's fighters.

In his account of the experience, journalist Mitchell Prothero writes that "my motivation for brokering the match was largely driven by the simple journalistic need to better understand the group."

The journalists and former Ranger Andrew Exum fared well, winning four games to the Hezbollah fighters' three. The two sides seemed to respect each other, judging from Prothero's account. During a break they shared some laughs. But, Prothero writes:

"At the very end of the evening, things take a chilling turn. The Boss [from team Hezbollah] walks over and takes Ben's gun away from him while criticizing his marksmanship. In an exemplary display, the Boss takes careful aim at a rope hanging on the other side of the arena and fires shot after shot, squarely hitting the rope each time while chanting Yahoud ('Jew') on each pull of the trigger. He seems to think it's funny, but no one else laughs."

A month later, Prothero reports, he was with the Boss again:

"I press him on what he thinks could stop this cycle of violence in the south. What if the Israelis left Lebanese lands, made peace with the Palestinians, and never threatened Lebanon again?

" 'Some guys would consider violence the solution to the religious questions, like liberating Jerusalem. But doing so would mean the end of the Resistance,' he says.

" 'So, peace?' I ask.

"He thinks for a second. 'Sure,' he replies, without much conviction in his voice."

Exum (who blogs at Abu Muqawama) spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep on Monday, for a report due on Tuesday's Morning Edition.

"A group that's killed Americans, that's killed Israelis, that is committed to the destruction of Israel ... but then you and some other people hit on a rather unusual way to get to know Hezbollah," Steve began.

"I was in a bar in Beirut, talking with a bunch of journalists — many of whom had been frustrated by the inability to get to know Hezbollah at the unofficial level," Exum said. They came up with the paintball challenge.

One thing he now believes, Exum said, is that "at the human level" the men he met were "just very similar to ... the 18- and 19-year-old Americans that I led into combat."

We'll add the as-broadcast version of Steve's conversation with Exum to the top of this post after it has aired.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The man we'll meet next took an unusual opportunity to get to know a terrorist group. Andrew Exum is a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later, he became an analyst and lived for a time in Beirut. And a recent article in Vice magazine describes a 2009 effort by Exum and some friends to better understand the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

ANDREW EXUM: Right. Hezbollah is designated a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government. It is a political and military organization in Lebanon, primarily. Of course, Hezbollah popularized suicide tactics as a weapon in warfare.

INSKEEP: OK. So a group that's killed Americans, that's killed Israelis, that is committed to the destruction of Israel. You have studied them academically. But then you and some other people hit on a rather unusual way to get to know Hezbollah.

EXUM: Yeah. I mean, I was in a bar in Beirut talking with a bunch of journalists, many of whom had been frustrated by the inability to really kind of get to know Hezbollah at the unofficial level. What we did - and all of us had spent years in Lebanon; you know, I don't think any of us were naifs, or didn't understand the environment. But we decided to challenge Hezbollah to a game of paintball.

INSKEEP: How does one go about challenging a designated terrorist group to a game of paintball?


EXUM: Yeah. So Mitch Prothero and Nick Blandford...

INSKEEP: He's a journalist. OK.

EXUM: ...and Nick Blandford wrote probably the best single volume on Hezbollah. They worked with one of their contacts within the organization - to just show up with a couple of low-level fighters, to play a game of paintball.

INSKEEP: So you don't challenge them by firing, you know, paintballs at their headquarters or trash-talking them. There was a polite invitation made. And what was the response?


EXUM: Yeah, it was somewhat polite, although I think Mitch Prothero, who set this thing up, I think he used me as the bait, so to speak. He said look - you know - we've got this former U.S. Army Ranger; he says you guys are terrible fighters; he says you guys couldn't fight your way out of a paper bag.


INSKEEP: He did trash-talk them.

EXUM: Yeah. There was a lot of trash-talk involved.

INSKEEP: So where did you meet? Where was it?

EXUM: So we met in this nondescript strip mall, kind of on the outskirts of the Shia suburbs in southern Beirut.

INSKEEP: It's late at night.

EXUM: Late at night. We go down into kind of this basement, this kind of concrete room, where they have a paintball court set up. And it looks like something that, you know, you might see in the United States.

INSKEEP: OK. So it's four on four, three journalists and you, Andrew Exum.

EXUM: Yeah, that's right.

INSKEEP: Four Hezbollah guys. And what were they like when you met them?

EXUM: Well, when we first met them, I would liken it to before a rugby game - where you just kind of eye the other person warily, but you don't really socialize. And then afterwards, it was like the floodgates opened. And then suddenly, there was a lot of back-slapping and sharing, you know, sharing water bottles back and forth.

So we ran out of ammunition in the first match. And yet the guys that ran the paintball place were resupplying Hezbollah with the ammunition.

INSKEEP: Home field advantage?

EXUM: Yes. Exactly. So we felt like the Israelis must've felt in 2006, you know. You're definitely waging war amongst the population. So we kind of conceded that game to Hezbollah, and we agreed that there would be certain rules going forward. We won that second match. And then we won the third and fourth match pretty handily because we had our technique down.

And they were very much fighting - or playing paintball as, you know - and here, I put on the hat of a former infantryman - as you would fight in combat. So they were doing buddy team rushes. It was really bad paintball tactics. But it was fascinating from an observer's perspective.

INSKEEP: What else did you learn about them?

EXUM: You know, what I discovered, just at the human level, a lot of these guys are just very similar to kind of the 18- and 19-year-old Americans that I led into combat.

INSKEEP: Article's been out for a number of days now. Have you had any blowback?

EXUM: You know, we haven't had much blowback. Most of the reaction has been pretty positive. Again, I've been actually surprised that where the negative reaction has taken place has actually been from those who are - I don't want to say they're groupies or - but those who are really sympathetic towards Hezbollah, and are so sympathetic that they, again, put them on this pedestal.

INSKEEP: They can't believe that these heroic fighters, so-called, descended to playing a game of paintball with you?

EXUM: Yeah, exactly. That's exactly right, yeah. There's been, I think, disbelief on the part of some Lebanese journalists, or academics, who work on Hezbollah, and who've kind of built up this organization as, you know, something beyond the confines of normal human strengths and weaknesses. And for them, this has been a little bit difficult to take.

INSKEEP: Andrew Exum, thanks for coming by.

EXUM: Yeah, sure thing.

INSKEEP: He's an analyst with the Center For a New American Security, and his experience playing paintball with Hezbollah is chronicled in Vice magazine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.